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N8’s Top Albums of 2011

n8 in 2011

I love it when N8 submits his year-end lists. They are unpretentious, span a vast repertoire of genres, and typically include several albums I have yet to hear. N8’s 2011 list fits the mold: in fact, I have yet to listen to any of the ones that made the list this year. Now this is not by lack of want or know — I’m familiar with many of the albums, just haven’t gotten around to them. Dig in and enjoy!

Intro by Fense

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Helms Alee / Weatherhead

1 Helms Alee / Weatherhead / Hydra Head

Amazingly good music from this Seattle rock trio. Weatherhead has all the ingredients for awesomeness: catchy hooks ‘n’ riffs, wide-ranging dynamics, unusual time signatures and polyrhythms, urgent pummeling from Hozoji Matheson-margullis, who became my new favorite drummer at the Weatherhead release show (presented by local radio station KEXP’s Seek & Destroy, with Akimbo, Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth, and Norska on 6/29/11 at Neumos). Helms also stole the show during the stellar Torche/Big Business event (8/4/11 at Neumos), which is saying something. I also appreciate that singing duties are shared amongst all three members. Weatherhead is only their second album – keep an ear out for their future output. Highlights: “Pretty As Pie”, “Elbow Grease”, and “8/16”, but it’s best when experienced front-to-back.

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Mastodon / The Hunter

2 Mastodon / The Hunter / Reprise

On Mastodon’s fifth studio album, the Atlanta progressive metal quartet comes with an abundance of more-accessible songs than usual while retaining their unique overall sound. Complexity remains from section to section, but arrangements wander less within compositions which sound more focused than on past albums (the longest song here is 5:31), with catchier riffs and more singable lyrical passages. And as with Helms Alee, it’s welcome to hear vocal duties spread amongst each musician.

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The Beach Boys / The SMiLE Sessions

3 The Beach Boys / The SMiLE Sessions / Capitol

After 40+ years and alternative iterations of material that was to be The Beach Boys’ follow-up to their 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds, SMiLE was finally released this year in the most complete version to date using the original material recorded in 1966/1967. Although some transitions from track-to-track aren’t as tight as they could be (Brian Wilson’s 2004 SMiLE is more realized in this aspect), it’s great to hear the songs and the harmonies sung by The Boys themselves (Wilson re-recorded his solo version). But the real gems here are the extras, which include the obligatory demos, unused takes, and alternate mixes of songs, as well as a lot of studio dialog, which provides fascinating insight into the creative process of what would become the most famous unreleased album between 1967 and 2011.

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Wild Flag / Wild Flag

4 Wild Flag / Wild Flag / Merge

Carrie Brownstein doesn’t think the term “supergroup” fits Wild Flag, but when each of the separate parts have previously established themselves in other bands as being “super”, and when the music you’re making in the new band is “super”, what should it be called? Wild Flag is loaded with bluesy rockin’ fun twin-lead guitar jams propelled by Janet Weiss’s powerful drumming. Highlights include “Racehorse”, “Romance”, “Black Tiles”, and that sweet tapped-guitar part Mary Timony busts out at 1:49 of “Short Version”. It’s super good.

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5 tUnE-yArDs / W H O K I L L / 4AD

Excellent sophomore album from Merrill Garbus, who got some help this time from Nate Brenner (bass/co-wrote four songs). Make no mistake though: this is Garbus’s show, which is especially apparent when seeing tUnE-yArDs live (check out video from my favorite KEXP in-studio of 2011 ). She plays the vast majority of the sounds, looping multiple athletic vocal passes, ukulele, two drums, tambourine, etc. into a fantastic rock/Afro-beat/folk hybrid. Highlights: “You Yes You”, “Bizness”, “Gangsta”, “Killa”, “My Country”.

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Rush / Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland

6 Rush / Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland / Roadrunner

Canadian rock power-trio Rush has released more live albums than most bands’ studio output, but this recording of a single entire concert from their Time Machine Tour is special for a couple reasons: it includes two songs that will be included on their next studio album (Clockwork Angels, planned for a spring 2012 release), and they’re both rockin’-good: “BU2B” and “Caravan”. Secondly, and the main selling point of the Tour, is hearing the entire Moving Pictures album (one of their best) live in sequence. As with every Rush show, it includes the latest epic Neil Peart drum solo (“Moto Perpetuo”), this time including a few more New Agey-sounding bits (it’s not as bad as it sounds) and a play-along with Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale”. Unfortunate song order splits Moving Pictures between the two CDs (though the split is consistent with the vinyl format), and bassist/singer Geddy Lee strains a bit with some of the vocals here and there. Otherwise, this is another excellent document of live Rush spanning their 37 years of studio albums. Highlights: “The Camera Eye”, “YYZ”, “Leave That Thing Alone”, “Caravan”, “La Villa Strangiato”.

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Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Beans, and HPrizm / Knives From Heaven

7 Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Beans, and HPrizm / Knives From Heaven / Thirsty Ear

In addition to all the work HPrizm (High Priest) and Beans have done in avant-garde hip-hop group Anti-Pop Consortium, and the decades of collaborating between jazzbos Matthew Shipp and William Parker (who also have long histories with avant-garde/free jazz), these four have made music together before (Antipop Consortium Vs Matthew Shipp, 2003). This album builds on that project’s sound, though this has less of an improvised, jazzy feel; if there were disagreements in the studio, it sounds like HPrizm got his way. Knives From Heaven has the usual futuristic sound typical of his group’s albums (this often sounds like an instrumental Anti-Pop project), but when it fires on all cylinders, the synergy emerges in aural pleasure. Hopefully these collaborations continue, but for now this is the new high watermark of jazz-hip-hop hybrid. Highlights: “This Is For My Brother The Wind”, “And Then A Voice Says”, “Half Amazed A/B”, “2Piece”.

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Kleptonaut / The Golden Age Of Space Travel

8 Kleptonaut / The Golden Age Of Space Travel / self-released

An excellent album from Hillsborough, North Carolina’s Jeff Sheilds (aka Kleptonaut, aka Podcast Troubadour) that blends acoustic instruments and electronics into a diverse set of richly-textured IDM tunes. “Android Bop” fits nicely alongside Aphex Twin’s prettier music. “All Systems Go” is reminiscent of The Books. “All My Bleep’n Funky Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” sounds like Ween’s “Blue Balloon” synth got drunk and crashed a dance party. Sounds like Brian Eno had some influence on “Recapitulation Demonstration”, with slashing guitar chords from The Edge. “Blarburgonia” is more ambient than most of the other material. Highlights: “Recapitulation Demonstration”, “Zen Zen Peaks”, “RrRageRrR”.

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Battles / Gloss Drop

9 Battles / Gloss Drop / Warp

The follow-up to progressive math rock band Battles’ debut album Mirrored (which itself appeared on best-of lists at the end of 2007) was anxiously awaited, and rewards the patient with tight, rhythmic journeys. With the departure of guitarist/singer Tyondai Braxton between albums there seemed to be a void for vocals, which the remaining members wisely filled with excellent guest spots from Matias Aguayo, Gary Numan, Kazu Makino (Blonde Redhead), and Yamantaka Eye (Boredoms); the other eight songs have no vocals. Highlights: “Ice Cream”, “Wall Street”, “Sweetie & Shag”, “Inchworm”, “Sundome”.

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Atlas Sound / Parallax

10 Atlas Sound / Parallax / 4AD

It’s weird to call Atlas Sound the side-project of Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, because his solo music is so good in itself. Parallax is simply loaded with great songs and performances, and the close-mic’d vocals lend an appropriate intimacy for such a personal project; you can hear breathing and mouth noises, which only add lushness to the densely-layered tracks. Highlights: “The Shakes”, “Te Amo”, “Terra Incognita”, “Amplifiers”, “Angel Is Broken”, “Lightworks”.

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